Viet Nam needs new approaches to fight corruption

An op-ed by Pratibha Mehta, UN Resident Coordinator in Viet Nam as published in Viet Week on 7 December 2012.

On 9 December, International Anti-Corruption Day is marked around the world and commitments to crack down on corruption are renewed. The Day is also an important reminder of the tremendous human cost of corruption, which affects everyone, with the poor suffering the most.  

When families have to pay bribes to get medical care, or when parents have to bribe to get their children enrolled in school, it is the poorest who can least afford to pay and suffer the most. When people have to pay to get a job in the public sector, it is not the best and brightest who get the job. When bribes become common practice and part of daily interactions, trust and confidence in the public sector gets eroded.

Corruption also occurs in large-scale transactions. It happens when powerful business interests influence public policies and decisions in their favour; when credit is provided without proper guarantees and based on connections; when licenses and development projects are granted to the highest offering bidders but lowest technically qualified; and when infrastructure projects are awarded behind closed doors. The results are hard to quantify. But overall they fuel inequalities, limit opportunities, lower the quality of services and infrastructure and hamper overall development and growth prospects.

So what can be done to reduce corruption? Like many other countries, Viet Nam has a comprehensive legal framework in place. This includes the 2005 Law on Combating and Prevention of Corruption (recently amended by the National Assembly); the adoption in 2009 of the National Strategy for Preventing and Combating Corruption towards 2020, which was signed by the Prime Minister; the Ratification by the President of the UN Convention against Corruption; Conclusion 21 from the Party’s Plenum in June this year; and a dozen of other pieces of legislation focusing on the prevention of corruption.

However, laws by themselves are not enough. And corruption remains a huge problem – globally and in Viet Nam.

Over the past few years Viet Nam has made good progress on increasing transparency and accountability. However, a series of recent studies point to a problem of systemic deficiencies. The research provides a vivid picture of how corruption negatively affects the lives of ordinary Vietnamese citizens. Today, more than ever, we have the evidence of what works and what does not. Now is the time to start using this evidence to strengthen the implementation of anti-corruption efforts.

For example, the Government recently reviewed its implementation of the UN Convention against Corruption on the chapters relating to criminalization and law enforcement and international cooperation, with support from UNDP, UNODC and the EU. The review highlighted a large degree of compliance with international standards and benchmarks, but also identified some important shortcomings. In particular, issues around the limited liability of legal persons, illicit enrichment, bribery in the private sector, and sanctions of and enforcement mechanisms for criminal acts of corruption were identified as areas where further reform is needed.

Corruption is also measured in the Viet Nam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI). Data from the 2011 survey shows about a third of those surveyed agree that bribes are required to receive medical care and to get a job in the public sector. One fifth find that bribes are needed to apply for a land use right certificate, 17 percent that bribes need to be paid in order for children to receive better treatment in schools, and 16 percent that they are needed to apply for construction permits.

The PAPI survey also highlights that there are large differences between regions and provinces in terms of their ability to prevent corruption, and it shows the need to further strengthen the enforcement system across the country and in all regions.

Furthermore, a recently released report on anti-corruption work, commissioned by the Government Inspectorate with the support of the World Bank, DfID and UNDP, suggests a number of other actions that can be taken. These include greater policy transparency, better mechanisms for public officials to declare their assets, administrative reforms at the local level and reforming some of the institutions dealing with anti-corruption. All are areas requiring urgent attention.

However, if we are to make real progress in eliminating corruption, it is also important for Viet Nam to focus on developing new approaches and solutions.

For example, curbing corruption also requires sustained efforts to stop the crime through law enforcement. However, Viet Nam’s legal framework does not sufficiently define all forms of corruption as criminal acts. And for those acts of corruption that are classified as criminal, criminal sanctions are not always enforced. Furthermore, investigative bodies often lack the necessary powers and capacities to conduct effective investigations. These are all areas that it will be important for Viet Nam to address.

The laws and regulations on anti-corruption investigation and prosecution will also benefit from greater independence and accountability. For the most serious cases of corruption, there is a need to strengthen the anti-corruption investigation and prosecution agencies. This will help to ensure their impartiality and institute effective oversight and supervision.

At a recent international conference hosted by the Corruption Eradication Commission of Indonesia in partnership with UNDP and UNODC, anti-corruption agencies from around the world agreed to the “Jakarta Principles for Anti-Corruption Agencies”. This document suggests the main principles that characterize independent and successful anti-corruption agencies and will also be useful as the Government of Viet Nam undertakes institutional reforms.

Finally, the upcoming revision of the Constitution provides an opportunity to consider ways to strengthen institutions engaged in anti-corruption enforcement, so that they are able to act even more effectively.

As we observe International Anti-Corruption Day, let us make sure to use the evidence we already have in our fight against corruption. By combating corruption we help to further economic growth, build better public services, foster equality and provide more equal opportunities for all of Viet Nam’s citizens.

More information?

Read the message from the Secretary-General on Anti-Corruption Day.